Bells of Peace
We had a wonderful, emotional Remembrance Day Service last week, in this centenary year there is something else to consider: “What was it like when it stopped?” One hundred years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns fell silent. The Armistice came into effect and peace descended.
Descended not just upon the mud-filled trenches of the battlefields, but also on every city, town and village in Belgium, France and Germany. So too in Austria and Hungary, Greece and Turkey, Italy and Russia. Even the far-flung regions of the US & Canada, Australia & New Zealand. And, of course, here in Britain. Right here, the word of a lasting peace rang out.
From the first prehistoric inhabitants, to the Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and the Normans, many have all settled here. Sometimes arriving with rancour, sometimes in peace. Through the centuries, Britain’s communities have grown. First villages, then towns, then cities. People living together, flourishing, relying upon one another. And, as is the case whenever humans live together, sharing news, good and bad, with one another.
How then, one hundred years ago, did the people of Britain hear and share the news of the armistice and end of war? How did ordinary folk learn hostilities had ended? That their young men were, by God’s Grace, at last out of harm’s way?
Not by text, that is for sure. Nor Facebook. But by an ancient means, conceived of before the internet. Before John Logie Baird invented television in 1920 or Marconi sent the first radio message in 1901. Before carrier pigeons, semaphore or the postal service. Even before the Middle Ages, when Guttenburg’s printing press first started churning out typed paper. For centuries before all that, the people of Britain had a way of broadcasting news quickly and effectively throughout the land.
It worked in all weathers, functioned around the clock. It spoke to all people, rich or poor, young or old, with the same voice. Quieter in a village, louder in towns and cities, yet heard by all. A method that became so iconic, so synonymous with life in Britain, that we use it still, to this day. Even in this School. It is, of course, the tolling of a bell.
A ringing bell, usually from a church steeple. A sound that cleaves the air like an axe through wood. A sound that conveys not just a message, but also a mood. A sound suited to all seasons; a joyful peal on a spring morning, chimes drifting on a warm summer’s breeze, a heavy knell that hangs like wood smoke in the autumn air, or a mournful clang that haunts the winter mist. For centuries, bells have spread our news. A single note can tell an entire story. The joy of a wedding. The tragedy of a death. The compelling call to worship. Even the simple striking of the hour is a gentle reminder that our time is passing.
The bells in this very village, as well as in Slindon, East Dean, Arundel, and further afield in Petworth speak to each of us. Calling us together from wherever we are, audible from this school, the houses in the villages or farms in the locality. Thus has it been in this country for centuries.
Tragically, throughout the war years, 1914 – 1918, the bells of this land tolled more often than ever, telling of death and loss in every village. It became so bad that the more melodious notes had to be removed from the ringing and many bells were muffled. That is, people climbed into the bell tower and placed leather socks around the metal clappers, dampening the sound. Muffled bells could still be heard, but their tone lost any gaiety, conveying only sadness.
Month after month, year after year, the bells of Britain rang only the muffled knell of loss.
Imagine then, if you will, what it must have been like on Armistice Day, one hundred years ago. Start right here, in Sussex, picture the scene: on a chill autumn day in Chichester, as people go about their daily lives then pause, prick up their ears to a sound they had not heard in five long years, perhaps thought never to hear again, unmuffled bells.
Someone has scurried up the steeple tower, untied the leather sleeves from off the clappers, and is now down below, heaving on the pull rope for all they are worth. The bells of the cathedral and churches are once again resounding, jubilant down the High Street, and out into the fields beyond. Can you see an old farmer there, laying down a rake and hobbling out of the gloom of the barn, blinking in wonder? Can you see a cook, frozen stock still in the pantry, hands limp, eyes brimming, scarcely daring to believe what those distant notes are saying? What about that row of hospital beds in a ward, can you see the prone figures of wounded, broken men stirring? Rising unsteadily? Cheering?
And can you see children, school pupils hunched in silence over their books? I can. Watch their heads coming up, bemused, as that exuberant peal of bells cascades from the local church, in through the classroom window. See them glancing at each other, marvelling at the sight of tears flowing down the cheeks of their usually stern and implacable Latin master.
Imagine that, and then multiply those same scenes out through every neighbouring village and town; in Hanaker, Boxgrove and Tangmere. The news carries on the wind and other communities as they unmuffle their bells and pass it on. On into the cities, in Brighton, Portsmouth, and Guildford where the great cathedral bells take up the refrain. And on and on and ever on. An outpouring, the music of reprieve, like a spontaneous wave of relief, washing across this entire country.
‘Until even that father of all bells, Big Ben itself, in London, sheds his mournful muffles and tolls the news of peace. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. The death bell tolls for you, but so, too, do the bells of peace.’
At 12:30pm last Sunday, the bells of Britain rang out in unison once again, in commemoration of Armistice Day. Wherever you may be, even in our modern, urbanised environment, I daresay the sounds will have found your ears. I hope that just for a moment you paused, and considered how euphoric those notes must have sounded one hundred years ago.
How that ringing, from out of a leaden sky, foretold a day, soon to come, when husbands, sons, fathers and friends would walk back through the door unscathed.
“Ring out the thousand wars of old,” wrote Tennyson,
“Ring in the thousand years of peace.”
Usually on Remembrance Day, we consider the toll that war takes on communities. This year, at last, let us also reflect on a happier toll; the joyous tolling of the bells of peace.
This article was adapted from an address given by the Headmaster at Bromsgrove School